Dula had a second lover, Anne Melton. It was her comments that led to the discovery of Foster's body; Melton was acquitted in a separate trial based on his word. Many believed that Melton was the real killer and that Dula admitted guilt to protect her. This assumption was based on stories at the time that Melton was jealous of Dula's upcoming marriage to Foster, and that she had murdered Foster to eliminate her as a rival for Dula's affections. Thanks to the efforts of newspapers such as The New York Times, and to the fact that former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono, Dula's murder trial and subsequent hanging were given widespread national publicity for the time. Further adding to the Dula legend was the fact that a local poet, Thomas C. Land, wrote a popular song about Dula's tragedy after the hanging.
A man named "Grayson," mentioned in the song as pivotal in Dula's downfall, has sometimes been characterized as a romantic rival of Dula's or a vengeful sheriff who captured him and presided over his hanging. Some variant lyrics of the song portray Grayson in that light, and the spoken introduction to the Kingston Trio version did the same. Col. James Grayson was actually a Tennessee politician who had hired Dula on his farm when the young man fled North Carolina under suspicion and was using a false name. Grayson did help North Carolinians capture Dula and was personally involved in returning him to North Carolina, but otherwise played no role in the case.
Dula was tried in Statesville, because it was believed he could not get a fair trial in Wilkes County. He was given a new trial on appeal but he was again convicted, and hanged on May 1, 1868. His alleged accomplice, Jack Keaton, was set free. On the gallows, Dula reportedly stated, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."
Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. (The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y" is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry").
The doleful ballad was probably first sung shortly after the execution and is still commonly sung in North Carolina. The song was selected as one of the Songs of the Century.
In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song. It is unclear exactly what Lomax means by this but, since it seems that the song predates Frank Proffitt's early version, it is likely that Lomax means that Proffitt's version is the one that has become most well known to us because the Kingston Trio derived their interpretation from Proffitt's. Certainly, there is an earlier known recording by Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately ten years before Proffitt cut his own recording of the song.
The song and legend were parodied by a one-record novelty act called Waldo, Dudley and Dora on a 45 rpm Grayson Goofed, issued as Awful Records release #PU-1. Verses sung to the Tom Dooley melody alternate with mini-skits, as "John" Grayson's public reputation erodes from "a fine man" to "a stoolie" (i.e., stool pigeon) to "a gink".
The song was often parodied by the Smothers Brothers as Tom Crudely.